By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Sherrie McCray, a 59-year-old resident of eastern Birmingham, said it was in June that she received her first exorbitant water bill. It was $525, she said.
McCray, who lives in a South East Lake apartment with her husband Orlando, said she has only continued to receive bills greater than $400 since June. While she pays on her balance each month and still has water service, she and her husband rely on a fixed income and owe over $1,300 to Birmingham Water Works (BWW), she said.
While the BWW Board (BWWB) is currently considering a 3.9% system-wide price hike, McCray contends that she has been overcharged and raising prices right now is senseless.
“I just wish [BWW] would get it straight because there is no need in going up if they haven’t resolved the other issue [overcharging] that’s going on down there,” McCray said.
And McCray’s not alone in her opposition to the rate hikes.
Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson, who voiced her opposition at a BWWB public hearing Wednesday, is holding a town hall of her own to discuss customer problems with the utility on Nov. 16 at 6 p.m. in the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club, 4821 Avenue W, Birmingham, AL 35208.
Tyson said the board is seeking to increase the cost of service without adequately addressing important problems.
“It sounds like they are actually taking advantage because they are the only water system that we have, that the people are dependent on them…That’s like you want me to buy a car, pay a car note, and there’s no engine or no motor, but you still want me to buy a car,” Tyson said.
Tyson said she’s holding her own town hall on the subject because residents who spoke at the public hearing earlier this week weren’t allowed to all stay in the board’s meeting room together.
BWW leadership may need a change, Tyson said, if customer billing issues are not able to be resolved.
“If the general manager can’t fix the billing problem, they need to fix the general manager…and the people that they have overcharged, they need to have an option of getting their money back,” Tyson said.
Birmingham Water Works General Manager Michael Johnson in a statement “apologized, first of all, to every Birmingham Water Works customer who has experienced any inconvenience in their billing, and we understand and take very seriously that frustration. Our commitment is to provide the nation’s highest quality water at the lowest possible price, and our customers deserve timely and accurate billing.”
He added that “in all cases” where any customer has difficulty paying their water bill, “we have made and continue to make available payment plans that allow the extension of payments up to 12 months.”
Tyson said it “saddens her heart” that she can’t help residents experiencing the billing trouble but that she’s “fighting as hard as I can” to help residents with their utility bills.
“I know for a fact that we can survive without gas. We can survive without light. We cannot survive without water. It is the most necessary bill that we have because we don’t have anything else to replace that,” she said.
William A. Barnes, president and CEO of the Birmingham Urban League (BUL), which has helped many residents pay utility bills, also said the BWWB is currently in no position to increase prices.
“I want to stress that there should be no additional funds that come from ratepayers until ratepayers have trust that what they’re being billed for, on a month-to-month basis, is accurate,” Barnes said.
Barnes pointed specifically to the utility’s reliance on estimations instead of physical meter reading for billing as part of the cause for incorrect, expensive bills.
“We have clear evidence of pictures where meters are covered with dirt, and you can tell no one’s come back and cleaned it off to look at it,” Barnes said.
The BUL has paid almost $200,000 to the utility on behalf of BWW customers, Barnes estimated.
“I have a high-level concern that if we’re paying folks utilities, and these bills are over-billed, then what essentially is happening is that that’s resources that are taken from someone else that we could potentially help,” Barnes said.
The struggles that many BWW customers are experiencing should be upsetting to anyone, he added.
“If you’ve got a heart, and you see people walk [into the BUL offices], saying…’Hey, I don’t understand why the system is treating me this way. I don’t understand why they can’t fix this over-billing situation.’ It’s just heartbreaking,” he said.
Moving forward, Barnes said the utility needs to base its billing on actual meter reading and improve transparency in its communication with customers. Customers who receive expensive bills should be contacted by BWW first, instead of the other way around, Barnes said.
The Birmingham Water Works customer line is (205) 244-4000
Updated at 10:08 a.m. on 11/11/2022 to correct “building” to “billing” in a quote from Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson.